A (w)hole new kind of hostel: how to build an insect hotel at your school

| November 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Megan Griffiths

Shrieks filled the air and I realised that I had misjudged my audience when I included those photographs of beetles, spiders and blind snakes in my presentation. Getting a group of teenage girls to embrace the idea of an insect hotel was going to be a bit more difficult than I had thought.

In June 2013, I was asked by Marilyn Evans – a history teacher in the high school at St John’s Diocesan School for Girls (DSG) in Pietermaritzburg – if I had any ideas for a heritage project to be undertaken by her Grade 8 learners. ‘Heritage’ is one of the topics to be covered in the syllabus. It is an abstract theme and one that is extremely difficult to discuss when students come from vastly different backgrounds. Evans decided to approach the topic by focusing on the common heritage of this group of pupils – the ISASA school they attend together. Rather than concentrating on old buildings, Evans had the inspired idea of celebrating the beautiful indigenous gardens at the school. I knew just what they could do to add to the heritage of the school grounds: build insect hotels.

What is an insect hotel?

During a sabbatical in Germany the previous year, I had encountered my first insect hotel: a structure created from repurposed and natural materials that provides habitat for insects and other wildlife. I was really taken by the concept, because it is such a simple and inexpensive way to add beauty to an outdoor space and to enhance biodiversity at the same time. Similar to a hotel that offers separate rooms for its guests, an insect hotel has lots of different spaces that can be used by insects or other invertebrate species for shelter, hibernation or nesting. These structures attract a diversity of wildlife including spiders, lizards, blind snakes and hedgehogs. Insect hotels have been popular in Europe and North America for many years, particularly because pollinating insects are under threat in those places. The idea of insect hotels is now gaining popularity in South Africa.

Why do we need insect hotels?

Insects are often mistakenly viewed as pests or something to be feared. However, the vast majority of insect species are beneficial. Insects and other invertebrates offer many important ecosystem services that benefit humans directly. The most obvious service provided by insects is pollination. There is an amazing diversity of bees, wasps, beetles, flies, moths and butterflies that are all important pollinators for indigenous plants and crop species in South Africa.

In addition, predatory insects such as ladybird beetles, lacewings and mantises eat pests that attack the food plants in our gardens. Insects and other invertebrates also play an essential role in decomposition, breaking down dead organic matter into compost that, in turn, enriches the soil and promotes plant growth. For these reasons, insects and other invertebrates are essential components of our ecosystems. In nature, there are many places where insects and other invertebrates can shelter, including dead wood, crevices in the bark of trees, hollow reeds and leaf litter. The greater the diversity of structures in a habitat, the greater the diversity of species that can live there. Even though South Africa has lots of natural areas, most places have undergone some degree of human modification. It is a common sight to see school grounds cleared of dead leaves, branches and grass. The result is that there are fewer spaces in which insects can live. Building insect hotels is one way to restore some habitat diversity in our school grounds.

How are insect hotels made?

Different insect species have different habitat requirements. Some may need a pile of twigs in which to hibernate; some will require hollow reeds for laying eggs; others will hunt for food in leaf litter. The idea of an insect hotel is to combine these naturally occurring habitats into a more compact space. Insect hotels can be made by anyone. The simplest insect hotels do not require any special tools and the materials can be found for free.

Insect hotels can be constructed in any shape or size using a range of different materials. One idea for a simple insect hotel is to fill an empty tin with bamboo or twigs. Another is to roll corrugated cardboard inside an empty plastic drink bottle. Once these mini insect hotels are completed, they can be positioned in a tree where they can provide a habitat for nesting solitary bees or hibernating lacewing insects.

More elaborate insect hotels should be sited on firm ground in slightly damp semi-shade close to overgrown plants or a water source. You can create a basic structure with wood or brick and then to fill the interior with natural materials that will provide insects with spaces in different shapes and sizes. These larger insect hotels can be built using repurposed or waste materials such as old bricks, broken flowerpots, roof tiles, pallets and paving stones. Natural materials – including logs, bark, leaves, pine needles and cones, dry sticks or twigs, reeds, straw or grasses, weaver bird nests, stones, seed pods, bamboo and moss – can be placed into the structure. Hollow bamboo or logs with holes drilled into the cut ends are particularly good nesting habitats for solitary bees and wasps, which are important pollinators. Recycled materials such as glass or plastic bottles, tin cans and corrugated cardboard can also be used in large insect hotels.

What role can insect hotels play in education?

Insect hotels are an ideal project for schools or community organisations because they have little to no cost. They are appropriate for almost any age group and can be used as a starting point for a wide range of different educational activities. Lessons based around insect hotel construction can focus on:

• Life sciences, agriculture or environmental sciences: Insect hotels provide a wonderful opportunity to teach learners about the essential role that insects play in our environment and the ecosystem services (pollination, pest control, decomposition) they provide to humans. Insect hotels can also be used to teach the concept of habitat and to illustrate how different species occupy different niches. Once an insect hotel has been constructed, it can be monitored to see what species use the different spaces provided.

• Geography: The learners can be set the task of mapping the school grounds and determining where an insect hotel might ideally be sited.

• Art: Insect hotels are a form of nature art. There are wonderful textures in natural materials and the most beautiful insect hotels use the shape and texture of these materials to create interesting patterns.

• Recycling: The mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is often repeated, but seldom discussed on a meaningful level. Because insect hotels are made of repurposed, recyclable and natural materials, they are an excellent way to teach about different types of solid waste and how they can be disposed of in an environmentally responsible way. Reusing broken flowerpots, old roof tiles and pallets to build insect hotels means that there is less solid waste being sent to landfills.

Insect hotels can benefit schools and learners in many additional ways. Having an insect hotel is particularly useful if your school has a food garden. Insect hotels can help attract pollinators and provide habitats for pest-controlling predators. This can make a tremendous difference in the number of fruits and seeds produced by the plants in a garden, particularly in areas where the surrounding landscape has been heavily transformed by human development.

Building an insect hotel also sends the message that your school values the environment. An insect hotel shows that wildlife is welcome in the school grounds. There is a strong movement to ‘green’ our schools, and an insect hotel is a simple way to start this process. Furthermore, an insect hotel can be used an action project for schools taking part in the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) Eco- Schools Programme.1

Lessons learned by building insect hotels at St John’s DSG

In retrospect, it wasn’t a mistake to have included pictures of beetles, spiders and blind snakes in my presentation. It was quite remarkable to see the perception of the learners change so profoundly during the course of this project. Building insect hotels allowed the learners to connect with nature in a direct and personal manner. Girls who were quite wary of insects at the beginning seemed to take on a much more accepting and caring attitude towards ‘creepy crawlies’ after they had spent time carefully planning and creating homes for these creatures. It was also wonderful to see how the girls were empowered by the opportunity to use power tools and handsaws. In the end, I think that building insect hotels was a transformative experience for these learners. And for their teachers, too.

Reference:
1. The Eco-Schools Programme is an international programme of the Foundation of Environmental Education (FEE) and is active in 51 countries around the world. The programme is aimed at creating awareness and action around environmental sustainability in schools. (Source: http://www.wessa.org.za/what-we-do/eco-schools.htm.)

Category: Summer 2014

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